Incommunicado

By

To be awash in recriminations seems to be the natural condition of
the Democratic Party. The party has engaged in blame-assigning
throughout the 1980s, much of the 1990s (remember health care, the
1994 elections, and impeachment?), the 2000 elections (not only
after but during), and continuing without interruption though the
George W. Bush presidency. The ritual is, in a way, deeply
reassuring: It affirms for party loyalists that their misfortunes
are contingent upon misjudgments that they can correct. It's indeed
true that there have been occasions when the Democrats' misfortunes
have resulted from their own mistakes. But the debacle that took
place in this week's elections is not one of those occasions. The
Democrats did not lose the Senate because of any tactical or
strategic miscalculation. There's nothing they could have done that
would have resulted in any appreciably better outcome. The harsh
fact is that, for the foreseeable future, the Democrats will face
an uphill struggle no matter what they do.One recrimination that began to circulate even before the election
took place was, as former Al Gore spokesman Chris Lehane put it,
"The way to nationalize an election and make it a referendum on the
Bush economy was to talk about the billion-pound elephant in the
room--the Bush tax boon for the wealthy." Now, no one would be more
eager than I to believe that the Democrats' political salvation
lies in attacking the Bush tax cut. Unfortunately, there's little
evidence that this is true. After the economy soured last year,
Democrats correctly understood that they had to come out for some
kind of tax cut. The position most took, which seemed to make both
economic and political sense, was in favor of a short-term,
egalitarian tax cut to bolster consumer spending but against a
long-term, upper-bracket tax cut such as that being pushed by Bush.
But, no matter how hard the Democrats tried to communicate this
difference to the public, the only messages that came through were
either for the tax cut or against it. And so most took the sensible
stance of voting against the tax cut but declining to trumpet their
opposition. Those who proposed canceling the as-yet-unimplemented
upper-bracket tax cuts found their position rendered as raising
taxes on the middle class.

A second, related critique is that the Democrats failed to
articulate an alternative economic program. But that simply isn't
true. It was Democrats who originated the idea of a tax rebate in
2001. Democrats also favored a second rebate and a temporary tax
credit to encourage business investment. Last winter, the Democrats
tried to use their economic stimulus plan in a straight-up fight
with Bush over reviving the economy. Instead, the debate ended up
being solely about Bush's proposal, which consisted of long-term
business tax cuts that offered virtually no immediate economic
relief. Bush and congressional Republicans lambasted Democrats for
failing to support their plan, and, after Democrats saw their
public approval ratings drop precipitously, they submitted
ignominiously.

The common element in these fiascos is the Democrats' catastrophic
inability to communicate their message. This sort of explanation
has, in the past, been used to make defeat seem contingent and
easily reversible; after presidential defeats by Walter Mondale and
Michael Dukakis in the '80s, liberals maintained that the party
didn't need to change its message so much as it needed to find a
more telegenic messenger. Alas, in this instance, the Democrats'
communication problem is structural and self-reinforcing.

The fact of the matter is the Republican Party enjoys certain basic
advantages when it comes to getting its message across. One is that
it has substantially more money for TV advertising. (Republicans
touted this advantage while talking up their prospects prior to the
election. Now that they've won, they ignore the impact of money
completely.) The GOP also enjoys allied media outlets like Fox News
and talk radio, which disseminate its message to its base in a way
that Democrats can't duplicate.

Both of these phenomena are relatively recent. Ten years ago,
pro-GOP mass media lacked its current breadth. And, before 1994,
Democratic control of Congress assured some semblance of financial
parity--business interests wanted to curry favor with the party
that wrote the laws as well as with the party they felt represented
their political viewpoint. Since Republicans took Congress,
however, they began to gain a decisive advantage in fund-raising,
and that disparity has only grown since Bush took office. (In the
last cycle, Republicans out-raised Democrats by some $200 million,
not including tens of millions spent by affiliated business
interests such as the drug industry.) During the Clinton
presidency, Democrats were able to offset the GOP's financial and
media advantages because they had the bully pulpit of the
presidency. Now that Republicans also hold the White House, they
enjoy almost unfettered capacity to set the political agenda.

This is why Democrats have failed time and again to find a popular
issue to use against Bush. Repeatedly, the Democrats have attempted
to seize upon instances where Bush sided with the interests of his
economic base rather than with the preferences of the general
public. Such cases are legion. Polls showed that the public wanted
a moderate tax cut geared to the middle class, rather than a huge
one geared to the wealthy. Polls also showed opposition to Social
Security privatization, support for a broad-based prescription-drug
benefit within Medicare, and backing for a tough crackdown on
corporate fraud.

None of these issues, however, wound up being effective for
Democrats. In every instance, Republicans presented their position
as if it comported with the popular preference and presented this
message not only through their own ads but also through those of
allied business interests. In tight races this fall, the most
visible TV presence typically has been advertisements by groups
like the United Seniors Association, thanking Republicans for
supporting a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. The United Seniors
Association is funded by the drug industry in part to prevent a
Medicare prescription-drug benefit. But there can't be one voter in
a hundred who's aware of this.

The mainstream media isn't much help in sorting through this, as
debates between competing policy proposals--whether tax cuts or
prescription-drug plans- -are are almost invariably rendered in
the press as arcane, niggling disputes in which neither side is
more right than the other. Democrats say the Bush tax cut favors
the wealthy, but Republicans say it favors the working poor.
Democrats say Republicans want to privatize Social Security, but
Republicans say they don't. Democrats say they want a
prescription-drug benefit within Medicare, but Republicans say they
want the same thing and blame Democrats for stopping it. Democrats
say Bush is doing the bidding of the accounting lobby and
undermining the Securities and Exchange Commission, but--Look!
There's a CEO in handcuffs on the evening news!

When the same thing happens to the Democrats over and over again,
you have to conclude that it's not just an interminable series of
tactical mistakes--if only Tom Daschle had said this or done
that--but the result of an actual structural disadvantage. This
isn't to say Democrats will continue to lose forever. Eventually,
something--a deep recession, a disastrous Republican
overreach--will come along to rescue them. And a better strategy can
help around the margins. But, for the foreseeable future, Democrats
will continue to lose, and the notion that smarter tactics or
better leaders or even a sweeping strategic reconceptualization can
rescue them from their predicament is little more than a comforting
delusion.

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